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Friday, May 29
12 PM (CT) Game 1: No. 3 Coastal Carolina vs. No. 2 California
6 PM (CT) Game 2: No. 1 Texas A&M vs. No. 4 Texas Southern
Saturday, May 30
12 PM (CT) Game 3: Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2
6 PM (CT) Game 4: Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2
Sunday, May 31
12 PM (CT) Game 5: Winner Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4
6 PM (CT) Game 6: Winner Game 4 vs. Winner Game 5
Monday, June 1
6:30 (CT): Game 7: Winner Game 6 vs. Loser Game 6 (if necessary)
This weekend’s College Station, Tex., Regional is sure to be one of the most offensive in the first stop on the road to Omaha, and it will kick off with a game that features two teams that have combined for 102 home runs on the season, in No. 3-seed California and No. 2-seed Coastal Carolina. Add in the fact that the renovated Blue Bell Park is very much a hitter’s park, and you’ve got a recipe for some fireworks.
Over the course of the season, a total of 62 balls flew out of Blue Bell, an average of 1.72 per game. 17 of the 36 games Texas A&M played at home this season featured multiple home runs. On three occasions this year, there were at least five home runs hit in a single game at the park, and once, the Aggies and South Carolina combined for nine round-trippers in a 15-14, 11-inning win for A&M.
This Regional is going to require a lot of pitching depth, and while the Bears have more than they have had over the past four years, it will still be tested.
CAL ON THE MOUND
Of Cal’s top four starters -- Daulton Jefferies (starting Friday), Ryan Mason, Matt Ladrech and Jeff Bain -- three have had minor hiccups in the latter quarter of the season, but, those three -- Jefferies, Mason and Ladrech -- each put together bounce-back outings in the final weekend against Oregon State.
Bain has played the role of 2011’s Kyle Porter this year, as the freshman who’s come on in an emergency and emerged as a solid starter, and since he’s seen work out of the bullpen, he could be seen more than once if the Bears make it to Sunday or Monday.
Jefferies will start on Friday against Coastal Carolina – who has yet to name a starter -- meaning that, in the event the Bears face No. 1-seed Texas A&M, it will be Mason on the hill.
“I think we feel pretty confident with that going in, but it’s going to be playoff baseball,” says pitching coach Mike Neu. “You’re going to have to get good performances out of guys in a big game, so you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. I think, if our guys pitch the way that they’re capable of doing, we’re going to be in position to win.”
Mason, in particular, is well-suited for Blue Bell Park. The sinkerballer has not allowed a single home run all year. The soft-tossing Ladrech has allowed one dinger, but 12 doubles, which could be a problem in a park with spacious 375-foot power alleys.
“Obviously, we’ll have to take a look at some of the match-ups here, see what’s going to benefit us,” Neu says. “I think we’re going to play to our guys’ strengths, no matter what, but we also are going to have to try to look at what match-ups are going to be favorable for us, starters as well as the bullpen guys.
“I think we’ve done a really good job of evaluating that, this year, and, in the games we’ve won, I think it’s worked out for us, pretty well. That’s just something that we’re going to have to look at, and we’ll obviously have to feel it out as the game goes, too. Some of it’s just going to be in-game, where we see what our best match-ups are. I think we have a good mix in the bullpen. It’s been one of our strengths. Obviously, I think our starters are more than capable of giving us good outings.”
The questions will come in the bullpen, particularly if the Bears have to play an extra game or if any game goes into extra innings. Freshman Righty Erik Martinez has been durable and effective, sporting a 1.71 ERA and one save in 31.2 innings over 19 appearances. He’s certainly capable of going multiple innings, as is senior lefty Chris Muse-Fisher (3-1, 2.27 ERA).
Beyond those two, though, there’s not many multi-inning options out of the bullpen. Sophomore Alex Schick showed that he still can flash a starter’s stuff in 5.0 no-hit innings against San Francisco earlier this year, but generally speaking, he starts to get a little shaky after 1.2 innings of work, or so. He’s best in a set-up role, and can pitch on back-to-back days, as can Nelson. Lucas Erceg -- named a member of the First Team All-Pac-12 on Wednesday – has been effective on the mound late in the season, but inserting the slugging third baseman as a pitcher has consequences.
If Erceg stays in for one or two innings, in a tie game, perhaps in extra innings, and then goes back to third, the designated hitter will no longer be available to the Bears, and the one other former two-way player on the pitching staff who the coaches trust to pitch is Jefferies, but he hasn’t picked up a bat since the fall of his freshman year.
“You look at a guy like Lucas Erceg, who has pitched well in a limited role, and now, maybe, you’re in a situation where he has to pitch a little bit more,” says Neu. “Guys like that can be really beneficial. I definitely like those guys. I feel like they’re good athletes, and they can really help you. In a situation like this, that could be the difference in the series, with a guy like him coming up big on the mound. He obviously is doing a great job for us in the lineup and at third.”
But, those are all ‘What if’s,’ and issues that could crop up on later games. The Chanticleers are dealing with more pressing concerns for Friday.
CHANTICLEERS’ BROKEN WINGS
Sophomore right-handed ace Alex Cunningham and senior lefty Austin Kerr weren’t available to play in the Big South Tournament last weekend, with Cunningham suffering from a forearm injury, and Kerr with an ailing elbow.
Both hope to return in some capacity, but Cunningham has only thrown 1.2 innings since May 9, dealing with tendonitis near the top of his forearm. He told MyrtleBeachOnline.com that he’s hoping to pitch through it, but he could just be a one-inning option.
Kerr hasn’t pitched at all since May 8 due to a partial tear in his ulnar collateral ligament. He plans to have Tommy John after the season, but he’s been given medical clearance to try to pitch through it, and expects to be able to throw all his pitches, but with less velocity on the fastball. As a crafty lefty, velocity isn’t his game anyway.
Since Kerr’s last start on May 8, the Chanticleers are 6-4, losing in the Big South Tournament title game. Since that last start – when Kerr allowed three earned runs in 4.0 innings in a 7-5 loss to Liberty on May 8 – Coastal Carolina has sent five different starters to the mound. That quintet has posted a 3.48 ERA for the Chanticleers, but has only averaged just under 5.0 innings per start.
A MISSING PIECE OF THE POWER PIE
In the power department, though Coastal Carolina comes in with 60 home runs on the year, they’ll be missing their biggest power threat in junior catcher Casey Schroeder.
The only experienced backstop on the Coastal Carolina roster, Schroeder sat out the Big South championship game on Saturday after having a rib injury cause muscle strains in his back, while sliding into second following a double against High Point. Schroeder hopes to return, but he’s been deemed day-to-day.
“I feel a little bit better than I did Saturday. I’m still having pain. We’re taking it day-by-day, but I just started the medication yesterday so give it a couple days to kick in and hopefully [it makes a difference],” Schroeder told MyrtleBeachOnline on Monday. “I’m hopeful, but I don’t know anything for sure. We’re still taking it day-by-day right now … But I’m hoping to be able to play this weekend.”
The good news for the Bears is, one, that Schroeder won’t be at full power – it’s hard to get much torque from a balky transmission – and two, that they haven’t allowed many longballs this season – just 15.
Jefferies – starting on Friday -- has allowed three circuit shots in 72.0 innings of work. What should be a concern is that closer Dylan Nelson has allowed five four-baggers in his 26.0 innings on the mound -- despite his team-high eight saves and .189 batting average against.
Schroeder, though, isn’t the only offensive threat on a team that’s hitting .278 – just ahead of Cal’s .275 team mark.
Coastal Carolina’s leading hitter – junior outfielder Anthony Marks -- is batting .351 with an on-base percentage of .432, and when he gets on, he can move. Marks is one of three Chanticleers with double-digit steals, swiping 17 bases in 25 attempts.
Like Campbell – the Bears’ and Chanticleers’ one common opponent -- the Coastal Carolina can run. The Camels finished the season fourth in the nation in stolen bases, with 117, and while Coastal Carolina isn’t quite as prolific, the Chanticleers are still dangerous, with 76 swipes on the season.
5-foot-9, 165-pound sophomore shortstop Michael Paez may not look like much, but he’s batting .330, with a team-best 19 stolen bases in 22 tries, and a team-best .437 on-base percentage. One note on Paez: His arm has worn down as the season has worn on, but he’s got a very solid glove and good range.
As a team, Coastal Carolina’s .377 on-base percentage is 52nd in the nation out of 295 Division I teams, and when the Chanticleers get on base, they will use the bunt to get runners into scoring position for the big bats. To go along with 60 home runs – 10th in the nation – Coastal Carolina is tied for 15th in sacrifice bunts.
Four Chanticleers have at least nine home runs to their name, led by JuCo transfer David Parrett, who’s come out of Iowa Western Community College to slug 10 home runs and drive in 37 runs in 49 games, hitting .241. Schroeder paces Coastal Carolina with 13 dingers, but is hitting .230.
The real heartbeat for the Chanticleers, though, is first baseman G.K. Young. The sophomore left-handed swinger is hitting .298, pacing the team in RBIs (49), with a .477 slugging percentage, 12 doubles and 104 total bases.
Young will be all the more important considering Schroeder is questionable for the opener.
At the plate, Cal has seen two of its most important pieces – Erceg and leadoff man Aaron Knapp -- start to pull out of their late-season slumps. Coming into the final weekend of the season, Erceg was hitting .232 over his past 14 games, and though Erceg went 0-for-3 in the first game, he saw 13 pitches in his three plate appearances, including a seven-pitch at-bat in the seventh. In the final two games against the Beavers, Erceg went 5-for-9 with a run, two RBIs and a home run.
“It’s been coming, it’s been coming,” says hitting coach Brad Sanfilipo. “I think, obviously, going into the playoffs, that’s great. It’s good to see him do that. It’s good to see him get a big hit like [Sunday]. You look to some of those series and some of those games that he cemented, and that was just a big swing. I think it takes a load off of everybody.”
Knapp looked very uncomfortable at the plate, with his front side leaking out, trying to cheat on 84 mph fastballs and making weak contact against USC in the final home series of the year. Against the Trojans, Knapp reached base just twice, going 1-for-14 on the series with three strikeouts.
Against Oregon State, though, Knapp went 5-for-12 with a double and a stolen base, though he did strike out three times.
“These guys are honest, in terms of how comfortable they are, at times, and Knapp was so hot, and then, to cool off, and maybe not feel as comfortable, he understands that, and he realizes that,” says Sanfilipo. “Contact to the ground, or being able to get that big bunt down [Sunday] alleviates some of the whole needing to feel awesome about his swing. That’s what Aaron can do. He can use his speed, and he can do other things. It’s trying to get him to understand that. He has so much value to us, even if he’s not super-dialed in. He puts so much pressure on the defense by just putting the ball in play. He puts so much pressure on a defense by just the threat of the bunt. I’m not sure how comfortable he felt against ‘SC, and I think he started to get a little bit better, back to where he was feeling a lot better this last weekend.”
Cal has a variety of weapons to bring to bear against the Chanticleers, including first-team All-Pac-12 first baseman Chris Paul, five-tool right fielder Devin Pearson and senior Brian Celsi.
Pearson – selected as an Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 player -- missed 19 games with a broken hamate bone, but he paces the Bears with a .350 batting average, is slugging a team-best .567 and owns an on-base percentage of .407 – second only to Paul’s .408 for the team lead.
From April 25 through the end of the season, Pearson went 24-for-56 (.429) with two home runs, nine RBIs, 13 runs and five walks.
Though Celsi has only started 39 games this year, he’s provided a steady bat (.288, 30 RBIs) and off-the-field leadership as a redshirt junior. Instead of just being a slap hitter, as he was last season, he’s started to drive the ball to all fields, and has three homers and five doubles to show for it.
“Guys like Chris Paul and Devin Pearson and Knapp, you just go down the line – Celsi – all these guys, that come, they want to work, and they want to be good, and they want to get better, and they want to watch film and they want to understand what’s going to make them better and make them succeed, and all those things,” says Sanfilipo. “You just give them the right tools. You communicate with them the best way that you can to try to get their strengths, and get their performance to the best of what it is. I think we’ve been a good partnership. We’ve worked well together, and it’s been fun. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Though junior Mitchell Kranson hasn’t been rewarded for it much of late, he’s striking the ball very well, with more hard contact than not. He’s hitting .252, but he’s due to see a few of those hard liners drop.
Kranson could prove even more valuable, given that freshman catcher Brett Cumberland -- third on the team with seven home runs -- has been nursing a sore right wrist. The switch-hitting backstop did not play on Sunday against the Beavers. Given the fact that Cal could play as many as five games in four days, Kranson -- who was the starting catcher in 2014 -- may see some time behind the plate. He started five games there, this season.